“Ethical Amnesia.” This is the hypothesized malady that some researchers believe could explain instances of repeated unethical behavior by individuals prone to wrongful conduct. The theory is that painful memories of their previous unethical actions are suppressed unconsciously by the habitually unethical, preventing them from learning to be good.
I know, I know. It sounds like a lot of hooey.
Psychologists Maryam Kouchaki from Northwestern University and Francesca Gino from Harvard University designed nine separate studies with about 2,100 participants to test how selective their memories of past unethical acts were. They found that ethical actions (like playing a game fairly) were remembered more clearly than their unethical counterparts (like cheating at the same game).
Barry Bonds, for example, was unable to remember his days playing baseball for the Giants, after steroids had pumped him up like the Michelin Man, but was very clear on his days with the Pittsburgh Pirates, when he was lean, mean, and PED-free.
I’m kidding. Back to the scientists…
“We speculated… that people are limiting the retrieval of memories that threaten their moral self-concept, and that is the reason we see pervasive ordinary unethical behavioors,” Dr. Kouchaki said in an interview.
The scientists asked subjects to write about their past conduct, ethical and unethical; they set up experiments where subjects detected an opportunity to cheat and then were asked to recall it later, and they had subjects read stories describing ethical and unethical behavior by others. The results of all the tests, say the researchers, indicated the existence of ethical amnesia. Our memories of our own wrongdoing seem to become less vivid as time goes on, facilitating more dishonesty.
Kouchaki and Gino state in their paper’s conclusions:
“After they behave unethically, individuals’ memories of their actions become more obfuscated over time because of the psychological distress and discomfort caused by such misdeeds. This unethical amnesia and the alleviation of such dissonance over time are followed by more dishonesty subsequently in the future.”
Color me dubious, at least that this research tells us anything we don’t know already without having to use “ethical amnesia” to explain it. Gallup polls annually show that most people think they are the most ethical people they know, and Ethics Alarms has noted repeatedly how unethical conduct is rationalized away by “Self-Validating Virtue,” #14 on the list, which is the human tendency to engage in circular logic holding that since we are good people, what we do can’t be bad; or that seemingly unethical acts are justified because anyone else would do the same thing (#1, “Everybody Does it”), or because its for a good cause (#13, “The Saint’s Excuse”), or through many other tools of self-deception.
Despite the headline, which was the first thing that leaped into my head when I read about this research, I don’t really think we need this research to explain Hillary Clinton. Clinton’s constant deceptions and unethical maneuvers ( here’s another one, from yesterday’s news) remind me of a memorable exchange in “Dirty Harry,” in which law and order zealot cop Harry Callahan (Clint Eastwood, of course) tells his chief that the villain, a serial killer, has to be dealt with quickly. “You’re crazy if you think you’re heard the last of this guy,” he says. “He’ll kill again.”
“How do you know?” asks the chief.
“Because he likes it,” says Harry.